Election Year Drama 

This fall, the politics outside inform the productions onstage.

In many ways, this year's election is even more of a nail-biter than the one four years ago, with both sides pouring buckets of money into increasingly mean-spirited campaign ads, and "undecided" voters vacillating week by week, depending on the latest scandal. Even local theater companies are weighing in, making political gamesmanship the theme for this fall season. Shotgun Players Artistic Director Patrick Dooley said they really had no choice — he and other artists have been wringing their hands and tearing their hair out, watching both parties battle for a thin margin of error. "I feel the country is more polarized than it's been in my lifetime," Dooley said. "Four years ago there was all this 'hope and change' stuff — now we've got two and a half months to go. How much worse can it get?"

Much worse, perhaps. Or much "better," depending on your vantage point. After all, many theater directors have decided to treat the election as an artistic muse. Shotgun Players was apparently the most inspired of any East Bay company, rounding off its fall calendar with Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical Assassins (Sept. 26-Oct. 28), a campy revue starring the fourteen people who attempted to assassinate presidents of the United States (most of them unsuccessfully). The play is no hagiography, Dooley assured, but it does get into the psychology of each character, and attempts to explain his or her motivations. The theater company will cap off the run with an election night party at The Ashby Stage (1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley), complete with pizza and a large-screen TV so that everyone can watch the drama unfold.

Shotgun's two Berkeley peers, Aurora Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, weren't as overtly topical, but they still imported the leitmotifs of politics and war into their fall openers. Aurora will kick off its season with The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (through September 30), a drama by young Chicago playwright Kristoffer Diaz about the world of pro-wrestling. Told from the perspective of a mid-level Puerto Rican fighter named Macedonio "The Mace" Guerra, it's a play populated by heroes and villains, battling in contests that are all pre-determined. Local director Jon Tracy will helm the production, which will mostly take place in a giant wrestling ring with big screens along the walls. Not for nothing does the protagonist's last name mean "war."

Berkeley Rep, meanwhile, will launch its fall season this week with David Henry Hwang's Chinglish (through Oct. 7), a play that doesn't resonate with election year politics per se, but does seem uncannily prescient of current news events on the other side of the globe. Rep spokesman Terence Keane said the Gu Kailai scandal in China, in which the wife of a recently deposed politician confessed to murdering a British businessman, bears "scary similarities," to Chinglish — with the exception that in Hwang's play, nobody dies. Rather, it focuses on the perils of trying to communicate across cultures, particularly from a foreign policy context.

The play that follows, An Iliad (Oct. 12-Nov. 11), is political in a more general sense, in that it's largely about combat and loyalty. Many of us know the story of the Trojan War from reading The Children's Homer in middle school — in this version, Keane said, Homer is a grizzled old barfly who's compelled to tell the tale over and over again, and make it relevant to a contemporary audience. Directed by Obie Award winner Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare (who played the vampire king on HBO's True Blood), the play will combine a simple presentation with vibrant, profuse soliloquies. Despite its bloody backstory, this Iliad purports to have dovish underpinnings. It might offer a reprieve from the political world outside.

As the season continues, it will veer from the political to the personal, with Aurora producing a program of four short plays by Berkeley High alumnus Thornton Wilder, Wilder Times (Nov. 2-Dec. 9), staged by founding Artistic Director Barbara Oliver. The Rep will mount Mary Zimmerman's version of a Chinese folk tale as its holiday play, The White Snake (Nov. 9-Dec. 23), incorporating romance with magical realism. Shotgun Players will take the social issues motif in a more darkly psychological direction with Woyzeck (Nov. 29-Jan. 13), Georg Büchner's play about a soldier traumatized by the military chain of command, and the execrable conditions of poverty. But they'll do the Tom Waits version, which should be lighter and more irreverent than the original — not to mention that Mark Jackson will direct it.

All told, we're gearing up for a juicy season, and one that won't shy away from the issues of the day — part of art's value is to digest its social context, after all. This year there's no way to avoid that, Dooley said. "People are not going to be thinking theater," he warned, in a tone that seemed more matter-of-fact than dispirited. He and the other company members at Shotgun had already resigned themselves to the current political mood, and Dooley said they'll respond with gusto. "Just embrace it," he said. "Go with it."

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